Saturday, May 7, 2011

Balancing Heartbreak and Hope: Emmylou Harris's Hard Bargain

Originally celebrated for her remarkable talent to construe the songs of others, Emmylou Harris has recently proven that she is quite the tunesmith herself. Still going strong 40 years into her career, Americana’s long-time mistress has just released her 21st studio album Hard Bargain (Nonesuch, 2011). Offering 11 original songs, three of which are co-penned by Grammy and Oscar-winning composer Will Jennings, Hard Bargain is a beautiful, subtle and extremely personal set of songs where Emmylou shares both an intimate reflection on her own life and her own interpretation of everyday struggles of American life.

Born into a military family in Birmingham, Alabama, Harris spent much of her childhood in North Carolina and Virgina. Her degree in drama at the University of North Carolina soon gave way to her music career, leading her to the folk scene in Greenwich Village. The young singer proved she had a gift for perfecting the songs of such folkies as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. Her debut LP, Gliding Bird, was released in 1968 and included acoustic renditions of her contemporaries. This promising beginning was cut short when her label went bankrupt weeks after its release. Coupled with the failure of a new marriage and pregnancy, she was alone and impoverished in Nashville. While struggling to make ends meet for her daughter, she moved back in with her parents and the put her guitar to work on the local folk scene.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Lamenting Canada's Public Broadcaster: Does it Matter?

Is there any point or value in having a public broadcaster? I ask this a few days after Canada’s latest national election, where once again I was riveted to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) as my only source for election coverage on television. The Mother Corp, as it’s known, did not disappoint, offering comprehensive coverage of all 308 ridings, well-chosen interviews and a crack team of analysts and pundits commenting on an historic election. It was an election that saw Canada’s perennial third national party, the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP), score a record 102 seats, thus moving it into second place and becoming the country’s official opposition for the first time since its inception in 1961.

The election also had me musing about why I only notice the CBC, which I otherwise take for granted, when something momentous or significant occurs, be it an election, an Olympics games, or even a Royal Wedding. Does it matter, in a country with two other major TV networks, Global and CTV, if we also have a CBC to bring us our daily news? I think it does – even if ironically, as I write this column, the CBC may be in its last days, at least in the form we’ve always known it to be.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

London Calling: Curtain Up in the UK

Matthew Fox and Olivia Williams, “In a Forest Dark and Deep”
Six plays in nine days proved to be a brilliant means of ignoring royal wedlock during a recent trip to England, while also fulfilling a longtime dream to immerse myself in London theater or theatre, as the locals prefer. April was sunny in the often rainy city, enhanced by a sudden heatwave that felt more Mediterranean than Thames. But I enjoyed the resulting lush vegetation primarily en route to sit in darkened venues, watching four grim dramas, one partially comedic take on serious global tensions and a single farce.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Buried Treasure: Bob Dylan in Concert: Brandeis University, 1963

Considering the long list of performance recordings, Bob Dylan in Concert: Brandeis University, 1963, is fresh, vibrant and engaging. Sung from the stage of the gym, he performs seven of his own compositions all of which are heard for the first time anywhere outside of Greenwich Village. Captured on tape by Ralph J. Gleason, the performance lay hidden in his house for 50 plus years only to be discovered by Jeff Gold in 2009. Gold is a collector and he found the tape box simply marked "Dylan Brandeis" among the late music critic's belongings. What a find!

The concert was recorded just 10 days before Dylan's 22nd birthday and even though it clocks in under 40 minutes, it represents a breakthrough for the artist. It captures the young Dylan exuberantly channeling Woody Guthrie while still in the process of developing his own voice. The evidence is stronger on this recording than on Live At The Gaslight 1962 where Dylan's set consisted of traditional music with a couple of originals. The Brandeis concert features seven original tunes and not what could be considered standards like "Blowin' in the Wind." That song is noticeably absent from the set. Instead, Dylan lays out three talking blues songs, plus "Masters of War," "Bob Dylan's Dream" and "Ballad of Hollis Brown." Consequently, what we get is a blend of Guthrie inspired numbers and new songs that prove Dylan was no fluke when it came to songwriting. (Just check out the Witmark Demos from last year.)

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Talking Out of Turn #17: Timothy Findley (1988)

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show, On the Arts, at CJRT-FM in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to artists from all fields. In 1994, after I had gone to CBC, I had an idea to collate an interview anthology from some of the more interesting discussions I'd had with guests from that period. Since they all took place during the eighties, I thought I could edit the collection into an oral history of the decade from some of its most outspoken participants. The book was assembled from interview transcripts and organized thematically. I titled it Talking Out of Turn: Revisiting the '80s. With financial help from the Canada Council, I shaped the individual pieces into a number of pertinent themes relevant to the decade. By the time I began to contact publishers, though, the industry was starting to change. At one time, editorial controlled marketing. Now the reverse was taking place. Acquisition editors, who once responded to an interesting idea for a book, were soon following marketing divisions concerned with whether the person doing it was hot enough to sell it.

Tom Fulton of On the Arts.
For a few years, I flogged the proposal to various publishers but many were worried that there were too many people from different backgrounds (i.e. Margaret Atwood sitting alongside Oliver Stone). Another publisher curiously chose to reject it because, to them, it appeared to be a book about me promoting my interviews (as if I was trying to be a low-rent Larry King) rather than seeing it as a commentary on the decade through the eyes of the guests. All told, the book soon faded away and I turned to other projects. However, when recently uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large.

Timothy Findley
In one particular chapter of Talking Out of Turn (Landscape and Identity), I wanted to feature artists whose sense of self seemed to grow out of the place in which they lived. For writers like Richard Ford (Rock Springs), Canadian poet Daphne Marlatt (What Matters) and Timothy Findley (The Wars, Famous Last Words) portraits of lives lived seemed almost inseparable from the lives of the people who created them. In the case of Findley, who died in 2002, he had written towards the end of the eighties a book of short stories called Stones that explored both the emotional and physical geography of Toronto, Canada. It is a city that we both grew up in that, by the eighties, was undergoing a dramatic change with the beginnings of a massive urban sprawl. That growth would cause Findley to leave for more rural surroundings. While I think some of what he predicted in 1988 didn't come to pass, the interview did indicate how the climate of commerce, the elevation of taxpayer over citizen, did reflect a city losing sight of itself. What Findley, I fear, saw coming was a Toronto where its inhabitants lived to work rather than work so they could live.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Yoga is as Yoga Does

For a word that means “union,” yoga can be incredibly complex. In North America, our relationship with the ancient Indian practice has been influenced by everything from Scandinavian gymnastics to colonialist Indian politics to how amazing Lululemon’s Groove Pants make our butts look. Indeed, for such a solitary practice, modern yoga seems to attract exhibitionists. Undoubtedly you’ve spotted a self-important yogi on a subway platform, unaware (or uncaring) that the mat they have fashionably strapped to their back could push fellow citizens into oncoming trains. Ah, inner peace.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Tradition & Transcendence: The Royal Wedding

On the days leading up to the momentous occasion of Friday's Royal Wedding, if you were to frequent your favoured news outlet for updates on anything relevant: our country’s election, political unrest, nuclear meltdowns and ongoing economic woes, you may have had your patience tested. The royal nuptials seemed to take precedence over all other news and continued to captivate over a third of the world’s population up to, and after, the ceremony. Frustrating for many, yours truly included. However, as the day drew nigh, I found myself drawn to the new couple.

Love it or loathe it, the wedding of Prince William to Catherine Middleton went off without a hitch. The grandeur began shortly after 8am London time when the first of the guests arrived at Westminster Abbey. Soon many of the world’s societal elite – among them queens, kings, dukes, emirs and Sir Elton John – all decked out full regalia filled the seats under the magnificent gothic interior. In time for the 11am ceremony, the stunning bride pulled up with her father. In a magnificent white dress - designed by Sarah Burton of Alexander McQueen – Catherine walked down the maple tree lined aisle to her Prince. After the signing of the registry the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge bowed to the Queen and departed toward Buckingham Palace in a 1902 State Landau Carriage. They smiled and waved at the crowd of 750,000 cheering onlookers. Finally, they wrapped up a perfect wedding with a perfect balcony scene for the, estimated, three billion viewers.
Despite my best efforts to not care about the Royal Wedding; despite how irrelevant I find the monarchy; despite the fact that I have a doctor’s note confirming my serious allergy to weddings in general, especially anything with gag-worthy fairy tale features; I couldn’t help but let some information seep in these past few months. Touching personal portraits of the Prince and his lady led to not only tolerance, but appreciation of why so many couldn’t help but take a peek at royal vows.